Human brain chemistry is incompletely understood and better methodologies are needed. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) causes metabolic perturbations, one result of which includes increased brain lactate levels. Attention has largely focussed on glycolysis, whereby glucose is converted to pyruvate and lactate, and is proposed to act as an energy source by feeding into neurons’ tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle, generating ATP. Also reportedly upregulated by TBI is the pentose phosphate pathway (PPP) that does not generate ATP but produces various molecules that are putatively neuroprotective, antioxidant and reparative, in addition to lactate among the end products.
We have developed a novel combination of 13C-labelled cerebral microdialysis both to deliver 13C-labelled substrates into brains of TBI patients and recover the 13C-labelled metabolites, with high-resolution 13C NMR analysis of the microdialysates. This methodology has enabled us to achieve the first direct demonstration in humans that the brain can utilise lactate via the TCA cycle. We are currently using this methodology to make the first direct comparison of glycolysis and the PPP in human brain.
In this article, we consider the application of 13C-labelled cerebral microdialysis for studying brain energy metabolism in patients. We set this methodology within the context of metabolic pathways in the brain, and 13C research modalities addressing them.